A new study has found children who suffer from headache disorders have been experiencing more frequent pain and worse anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The small study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Child Neurology, points to elevated stress — from disruptions to their daily lives, social distancing and anxiety around the disease — as well as decreased physical activity and increased screen time as causes.
Increased participation in virtual environments may have resulted in feelings of isolation and anxiety for kids, lead author Marc DiSabella, an osteopathic doctor and director of the Headache Program at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., said in a press release.
“These findings are really impactful to me as a physician and a parent,” DiSabella said.
“It is important we gain a better understanding about how stress and changes in routine affect children’s well-being and mood.”
The researchers had 107 pediatric patients who suffer from headaches complete a questionnaire from summer 2020 to winter 2021 in order to track any changes in their headaches and lifestyles.
Prior to the pandemic, 60 per cent of respondents reported having headaches fewer than 15 days in a month.
This fell to 50 per cent during the pandemic, with the number of patients reporting constant daily headaches rising to 36 per cent from 22 per cent pre-pandemic.
Forty-nine per cent of patients said their headaches got worse since the pandemic began and 54 per cent said the amount of physical activity they did also dropped because of COVID-19. Patients and families often cite lack of physical exercise as a trigger for migraines, the study’s authors say.
Sixty-one per cent of participants also reported using screens for more than six hours a day.
While the researchers say it isn’t clear whether increased screen time worsens headaches or not, patients and families “routinely” point to it as a headache trigger.
DiSabella adds that patients with headache disorders have disproportionately high rates of mood complaints, with participants in the study reporting worse anxiety, mood and workload during the pandemic.
The researchers say the study’s small sample size and observational design are limiting factors.
However, DiSabella recommends parents talk with their children about the impact the pandemic has had on their headaches and mood, as well as offer them help at home or with a trained professional in child psychology.
“Having a headache every day, all the time, with no break in sight, is really frustrating to children and their parents,” DiSabella said.
“They just want to be a normal child yet have no control over when the pain increases, and they suddenly are unable to do simple activities like reading a book or seeing friends, which adds to the uncertainty of their future.”